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New season, new entrepreneurship opportunities

A young girl works in the "Fab Lab" at Orange County Library System's Dorothy Lumley Melrose Center.
A young girl works in the “Fab Lab” at Orange County Library System’s Dorothy Lumley Melrose Center. Photo credit: Orange County Library System.

This is a strange time of year. The days are still long and hot – at least here in D.C. – but the Labor Day promos and pre-season football games signal the start of a new season. It’s around this time that I usually reflect on the waning summer. Having just gotten back from a long vacation at the beach, I’ve had plenty of time for reflection on the past year. Professionally, I’ve focused heavily on a single topic these past few months: entrepreneurship.

In late June, months of research, outreach, and writing culminated in OITP’s release of a white paper on the library community’s impact on the entrepreneurship ecosystem. The paper brought together data and cases from across the country to outline the bevy of services academic and public libraries offer entrepreneurs. We called the paper “The People’s Incubator.” You don’t have to read the text to recognize the accuracy of this metaphor for describing the role the library community plays in helping people bring innovative ideas to life. Libraries are, and have always been, creative spaces for everyone. Since the analog era, library programs and services have encouraged all people to convert notions into innovations.

But, the more time that passes since the paper’s release, the more I feel the “People’s Incubator” moniker isn’t quite adequate to describe what the modern library community does in today’s entrepreneurship space. It does justice to the creative power of library resources, but it doesn’t convey the steadiness of the support the library community offers entrepreneurs at every turn. At each stage of launching and running a business – planning, fundraising, market analysis and more – libraries are equipped to offer assistance. Business plan competitions, courses on raising capital, research databases, census records, prototyping and digital production equipment, business counseling and intellectual property information all combine to round out the picture of the entrepreneurship services available at the modern library.

A facility offering these services is not just an incubator – it’s a constant companion; a hand to hold while navigating a competitive and often unforgiving ecosystem. And the more I read about library entrepreneurship activities, the more convinced I become that influencers across all sectors should leverage the robust resources libraries provide entrepreneurs to encourage innovation across the country. In just the few months since we published the paper, I have found one after another example of libraries’ commitment to developing a more democratic and strong entrepreneurship ecosystem. In addition to the examples described in the paper, recent library partnerships illustrate the entrepreneurship synergies the library community can help create.

The New York Public Library (NYPL) recently partnered with the 3D printing service bureau Shapeways to develop curricula for teaching the entrepreneurial applications of 3D printing.  The curricula will be piloted in a series of NYPL courses in the fall of 2016, and then publically released under an open license. Continued partnerships between libraries and tech companies like this one will advance the capacity of libraries to build key skills for the innovation economy.

For over a year, the Memphis Public Library has been a key partner in a citywide effort to boost start-up activity. Working with colleges, universities and foundations, the library’s resources and programming has helped the Memphis entrepreneurship ecosystem create hundreds of jobs. Libraries can and should continue to be a major part of these sorts of collaborations.

With support from the Kendrick B. Melrose Family Foundation, The Orange County Library System in Orlando opened the Dorothy Lumley Melrose Center in 2014. The Center offers video and audio production equipment, 3D printers, arduino and other electronics, and a host of tech classes – all of which individuals can use to launch new innovations and build key skills for the modern economy.

Through a partnership between the Montgomery County Public Library and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 80 teens had the opportunity to work in teams this summer to design their own mobile medical apps. The teens recently “pitched” their apps to a panel of judges at the FDA’s main campus in Silver Spring, Maryland. They’ve also gotten the chance to visit the White House.

Beyond partnerships between libraries, private firms, government agencies, academic institutions and foundations, library collaborations with Small Business Development Centers – federally-supported entrepreneurship assistance facilities – continue to be publically highlighted.

So, if I’ve learned anything from my summer of entrepreneurship, it’s this: libraries, as constant companions for entrepreneurs, are natural partners for the many public, private, non-profit and academic actors that work to advance the innovation economy. We will trumpet this important message in the coming weeks and months, as we work to alert policymakers to the important work of libraries ahead of the November elections. To do that, we need good examples of library efforts to advance start-up activities. Share yours in the comments section!

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Charlie Wapner

Charlie Wapner is an information policy analyst for the Washington Office.

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